Following the Science of Heuristics and Biases – and a Tragic Love Story

The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds, by Michael Lewis, tells the story of how Israeli psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky came together – and fell apart – in their research that radically advanced our knowledge of how people’s minds work.  This is another post in my What-I’m-Reading series.

Kahneman and Tversky’s work has become widely accepted to help explain dispute resolution and many other fields dealing with human thought and behavior.  Tversky died in 1996.  Kahneman won the Nobel Prize for economics in 2002, which he said was based on their joint efforts.  His best-selling 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, provides his account of how they developed their insights.

Really Following the Science

Both Undoing and Thinking narrate the story of Kahneman and Tversky’s studies as they developed their new and improved understandings.  Lewis, the author of popular books such as Moneyball and The Big Short, fleshes out the story with interviews of people who knew them, emails, and even their notes and drafts of their papers.

Like many slogans, “follow the science” is very misleading.  In the context of the covid pandemic, people often used it, implying that science is a clear body of knowledge that simply should be accepted as true and lead to the right decisions.  In fact, science is a method and mindset of carefully collecting and analyzing data to produce evolving understandings.  The history of science is the story of a succession of knowledge paradigms that supplant prior paradigms to produce better approximations of reality, as described in Thomas S. Kuhn’s classic book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

Both Undoing and Thinking provide concrete illustrations of how science really works.  Scientists find problems with the conventional scientific beliefs of their time and use scientific methods of empirical research to develop improved theories.  Often, scientists who develop new paradigms face resistance from established scientists who accept the status quo.  The cycle continues as new paradigms are challenged by scientists who see “anomalies” in the once-new paradigms.  Tversky vividly described this process.  “We started this unknown field …. We were shaking trees and challenging the establishment.  Now we are the establishment.  And people are shaking our tree.”

A Tragic Love Story

Undoing tells the story of one of the oddest couples you could imagine.  Kahneman grew up in Nazi-occupied France and lived in hiding for several years.  His family moved to then-Palestine shortly before the establishment of the State of Israel.  He generally was introspective, insecure, and often depressed.

Tversky was a “sabra,” a native-born Israeli (though he was born was before Israel was established).  He was extremely self-confident, funny, arrogant, and sometimes reckless.

They both were psychologists at Hebrew University in the 1960s but generally didn’t interact very much at first.  In 1969, Kahneman invited Tversky to give a talk at one of his graduate seminars.  Kahneman thought that the ideas Tversky presented were “idiotic” and he “let him have it.”  This was shocking because few people challenged Tversky, and Kahneman seemed unlikely to be the kind of person who would do so and to do it so strongly.  Even more surprising, Tversky reacted positively to the challenges.

Thus was born their collaboration.  Lewis describes their relationship as “lovers” in “every way but sexually.”  Day after day, they spent hours together just talking.  They wrote their papers together and couldn’t tell who contributed particular ideas or language.  Over time, they became increasingly recognized as major scholars, teaching at a series of elite US universities.

Tversky got more attention, including a MacArthur “genius grant,” and sometimes didn’t acknowledge Kahneman’s contributions and be sensitive to his feelings, which led to tensions between them.  Undoing describes how Kahneman was ready to end their friendship.  Soon after that, Tversky died of cancer.

This was like the story of the Beatles’s brilliant collaborations, only to be destroyed in a bitter breakup.  That was the most compelling aspect of the book for me.

Footnotes

The “Undoing Project” refers to research about how people fantasize about undoing tragedies.  For example, people may feel more regret – and compelled to fantasize more about undoing things – if they get mugged going home in an unusual route than if they went on their usual route.  The “undoing project” is a relatively small part of the research and the book.  I wonder if the title was chosen to reflect the undoing of the relationship between Kahneman and Tversky.

Click here for a summary of Thinking, Fast and Slow, with commentary by Sanda Kaufman, which was part of the Tower of Babel Symposium book club.

Thanks to George Seidel for the suggestion to read Undoing.

2 thoughts on “Following the Science of Heuristics and Biases – and a Tragic Love Story”

  1. Some follow-ups to this post about Kahneman and Tversky’s work.

    I unintentionally demonstrated their work by using the anchoring heuristic when writing this post. I originally described them as “Hebrew” psychologists because their work at Hebrew University was a significant part of the story. If they worked at another university, I would have described them as “Israeli” psychologists (as I revised the post to read).

    A NYT op-ed illustrates why it doesn’t make sense to simply “follow the science” in making decisions about covid. In When Do Masks Come Off? The Hard Truth About Lifting Covid Restrictions, epidemiologist Jay K. Varma wrote, “Policymakers need to be humble about what we don’t know, especially with Covid-19.” Although there is good scientific evidence about the beneficial effects of certain public health measures, such as vaccination and mask-wearing (as well as the lack of benefits from measures like injecting bleach), this evidence evolved over time. We shouldn’t succumb to hindsight bias as if we knew this all along. Our knowledge improves as scientists conduct more research. We knew very little at first, we know more now, and we will know even more in the future.

    Dealing with the novel covid disease, we’re focusing on an evolving situation with the development of new and different covid variants. So our old knowledge may not be valid for new situations. And Varma shows that our knowledge at any moment can help inform our decision-making, but it can’t produce the “right” decisions. Public health decisions inevitably involve many judgments that “science” cannot provide. NYT reporter David Leonhardt discusses this in more detail.

    Kahneman and Tversky weren’t dealing with evolving situations like covid. Cognitive phenomena presumably hadn’t changed since the predecessor “expected utility theory” was accepted as the dominant paradigm. Even so, their work shows that “following the science” doesn’t produce eternally correct knowledge. Just better approximations of reality (if done well).

  2. A Washington Post Article, “Follow the Science”: As Year 3 of the Pandemic Begins, a Simple Slogan Becomes a Political Weapon, shows how this well-intentioned idea became political fodder in our culture wars.

    “Like so many Americans, when Flam hears ‘follow the science’ these days, she braces for a statement likely to be anything but scientific: ‘The phrase became associated with safety-ism and overcaution, like people would use it sarcastically when they saw someone running through a field wearing an N95 mask,’ she said. At the same time, ‘follow the science’ also became a taunt deployed by vaccine and mask advocates against those who spurned such mandatory public health measures.

    “Now, as the torrent of covid-19 cases unleashed by the omicron variant recedes in most of the country, advocates for each side in the masking debate are once again claiming the mantle of science to justify political positions that have as much to do with widespread bipartisan frustration over two years of life in a pandemic as with any evolution of scientific findings. …

    “Those who urge others to just ‘follow the science’ generally claim to be politically unbiased: They’re just pledging allegiance to the higher power of fact and neutral inquiry.

    “But as Flam has discovered, ‘so much is mixed up with science — risk and values and politics. The phrase can come off as sanctimonious,’ she said, ‘and the danger is that it says, “These are the facts,” when it should say, “This is the situation as we understand it now and that understanding will keep changing.”’ …

    “‘I just wish when people say “follow the science,” it’s not the end of what they say, but the beginning, followed by “and here’s the evidence,”’ Gordin said.”

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